RONDEAU DIGS UP THE MISSING LETTER
The first three weeks of Julia's stay in New Orleans were, as we have learned, spent at the house of Dr. Lacey. His mother was present, and although she readily acknowledged the uncommon beauty of her fair visitor, yet from the first she disliked her.
The servants, too, as if adopting the opinion of their mistress, felt and expressed among themselves an aversion to the "evil-eyed lady," as they termed Julia. Aunt Dilsey, in particular, soon had her own reason for disliking her. The second day after Julia's arrival, as she was strolling through the yard, she encountered Jackson, a bright little fellow, three years of age, and Aunt Dilsey's only son. Jack, as he was usually called, was amusing himself by seeing how far he could spit! Unfortunately he spit too far, and hit Miss Julia's pink muslin. In an instant her white, slender fingers were buried in his wool. His screams soon brought Aunt Dilsey to the rescue. Upon learning the dreadful crime of which Jack had been guilty, she snatched him from Julia's grasp, and hurried him into the house without a word. From that time Dilsey was Julia's sworn enemy, and Jack was taught to make up faces at her, whenever he could do so without being discovered.
The servants, however, were too well trained to manifest any open disrespect, for they knew she was "marster's guest," and as such was entitled to every possible attention.
When first she arrived Dr. Lacey felt exceedingly uncomfortable, for her presence constantly reminded him of the past, and his reminiscences of Julia were not particularly pleasant. Gradually this feeling wore away, for she appeared greatly changed. There was a softness, a gentleness, in her manner, which seemed to Dr. Lacey like Fanny, and then her voice, too, was so like her sister's that ere long she ceased to be disagreeable to him, and instead of avoiding her society, as at first he had done, he now sought it.
Julia saw her advantage, and determined to follow it up. Nothing could exceed her extreme amiability, and apparent sweetness of disposition. Even Mrs. Lacey was partially deceived, and concluded she had been too hasty in her estimation of Miss Middleton. Still she watched her son's movements narrowly, and hoped he had no intentions of making Julia his wife.
She was in New Orleans three weeks before her uncle's house was in readiness; but at the end of that time she, together with Dr. Lacey, Mabel Mortimer and Florence Woodburn were about to exchange the heat and dust of the city for a cooler residence near the lake. The day before they left was hot and sultry, and in the morning Julia sought the shade of a large vine-wreathed summer house, which stood in the garden, near by the tree under which Rondeau had buried his master's letter.
One word now about our old friend Rondeau. The buried letter had cost him a world of trouble. He was constantly fearful lest he should be detected. Particularly was he afraid that the author of the letter, failing to receive an answer, would write again, and thus he might be exposed. Twice had he dug up the epistle upon occasions when he fancied some one of his master's letters bore a similar superscription. In this way he had become tolerably familiar with Mr. Miller's handwriting, which was rather peculiar, being a large, heavy, black hand.
On the morning when Julia was snugly esconced in the summer house, Rondeau returned from the post office in great tribulation.
"What's up now?" asked Leffie, whom Rondeau drew aside, with a dolefully grave face.
"Nothing's up," answered Rondeau, "but the letter has got to come up! I ain't going to feel like I was a whipped dog any longer. I'll confess all to Marster George, for see, here's another like the buried one." So saying, he held up Mrs. Carrington's letter, on the envelope of which was Mr. Miller's writing.
Leffie offered no remonstrance, and as Aunt Dilsey just then screamed for her, Rondeau went alone to the garden and proceeded to disinter the buried document. 'Twas but the work of a moment, and could Julia have been cooling herself in Greenland, as she ought to have been, all would have ended well. And now I suppose some indignant reader will say, "Why didn't you put her in Greenland, then, or some worse place?" But patience, patience, a little longer. You would have us tell things just as they were, I suppose, so we must not only suffer Miss Julia to be in the summer house, but we must also allow her to be a spectator of Rondeau's proceedings.
She was greatly surprised when she saw him take from the cigar box a much soiled, yellowish-looking letter, and she could not help feeling that in some way it concerned herself. Suddenly appearing, she startled Rondeau by saying, "What are you doing? Whose is that? Give it to me."
Rondeau was anxious to conceal from her his long-buried treasure, and he passed her the other. She took it and recognizing Mr. Miller's writing, knew also that Rondeau had given her the wrong one, so she said in a commanding tone, "What does all this mean? Give me the other one immediately."
The submissive African, ever obedient to his superiors, handed her the other letter, and then in a few words told his story, and announced his intention of confessing all to his master, at the same time extending his hand to take the letters. But Julia did not mean he should have them, and she said, coaxingly, "You have done very wrong, Rondeau, and your master will undoubtedly be very angry, but I will take them to him and intercede for you, as you are on the whole a pretty fine fellow. He'll forgive you for me. I know he will, but mind, don't you say anything to him about it until you've seen me again."
So saying, she returned to the house and, going to her room, bolted the door. After which, breaking the seal of the oldest letter, she deliberately read it through, occasionally uttering a malediction against Mr. Miller, thanking the good luck which brought it to her hands instead of Dr. Lacey's, and making remarks generally. Said she, "Mighty good opinion Mr. Quilting-frames has of me (alluding to Mr. Miller's height), glad I know his mind. A heap of good the answer to this did him, and his doll wife, too. Hadn't I better answer it myself? I'd write after this fashion: 'Mr. Miller--At first I thought I would treat your letter with silent contempt, but recently I have concluded to write and thank you to mind your own business. By order of George Lacey, Esq.--Julia Middleton, Secretary.' Yes, that would serve the meddling old Yankee Dictionary right," continued she, and then, as her eye fell upon the remaining letter, she added, "Yes, I'll read this one too, and see what new thing I'm guilty of!"
As soon as she broke it open and glanced at the handwriting, she knew it to be from Mrs. Carrington. "What now?" said she, "what has Mrs. Carrington got to say about me."
A rapid perusal of the letter showed her what Mrs. Carrington had to say, and she continued her remarks as follows: "She has described me quite accurately. I didn't suppose she knew me so well. I wonder who'll write next! It seems everybody is in league against me, but I'm enough for anybody there is in Kentucky; and," she added, in a lower tone, "I wouldn't hesitate to try my strength with Satan himself;" but even then the dark girl trembled as she thought there was a God, whom none could withstand, and who, one day, would inevitably overtake her.
Quickly as possible she drove such unpleasant thoughts from her mind, and then tried to devise the best plan for managing Mrs. Carrington. "For Mr. Miller's letter," said she, "I care nothing. It was written so long ago that he has ceased expecting an answer, but I well know Mrs. Carrington's designs, and she will continue to write until she receives some reply. I have once successfully counterfeited Dr. Lacey's handwriting, and can do it again. I'll send her something that will quiet her nerves better than assafoetida!"
This settled, she went in quest of Rondeau, whom she told that, as she had expected, his master was very much displeased. "But," said she, "after I interceded awhile for you, he said he would forgive you on condition that you were never guilty of the like again, and never mention the subject to him in any way, as it makes him angry to talk about it." To both these conditions Rondeau readily agreed, and Julia left him, thinking she was safe in that quarter.
Several days after, Mrs. Carrington received a letter which she supposed came from Dr. Lacey. In it she was coolly requested not to interfere in other people's matters, and told that any efforts on her part to engraft herself into Dr. Lacey's good graces by maligning Julia, would be useless, and only serve to confirm him in his present low opinion of her, while at the same time it would increase the high estimation in which he held Miss Middleton!
After that Mrs. Carrington troubled Dr. Lacey with no more letters, but busied herself in anticipating the capture of a wealthy gentleman, who Ashton told her was, in the course of two or three months, coming on from Charleston, South Carolina.
The scene now changes from Dr. Lacey's to the "Indian Nest," on the lake shore. It was a charming spot, and looked as if intended only for the inhabitation of the pure and innocent. Yet even there was crafty ambition and base deceit. Julia was there, eagerly seeking to wind her coils securely around her long watched-for prey. To all eyes but her own she seemed not likely to succeed, for though Dr. Lacey admired her and possibly treated her with more attention than he did either Mabel or Florence, yet his heart still turned to Fanny, and for hours he would sit, talking to Julia of her sister, while she schooled herself to answer all his questions without one sign of impatience.
Occasionally she would speak to Dr. Lacey of his cousin, young Stanton, and would tell how much pleasure Fanny seemed to take in his society. But this produced no effect, for Dr. Lacey had learned from Stanton himself of his approaching marriage with Miss Ashton. Then Julia pulled another string and expatiated so largely upon Frank Cameron's sayings and doings that Dr. Lacey became really uneasy, for recently he had thought seriously of again writing to Fanny, and now he determined to do so.
Without knowing it, Julia was herself the means of causing this determination to be carried into effect. One night she and Dr. Lacey had been strolling for more than an hour through the many delightful walks in the garden, which lay upon the lake shore. To her great satisfaction, they were entirely alone, for Mr. Middleton and Florence were engaged in their favorite game of chess, while Mabel was eagerly listening to Ashton, who was relating to her some of his India adventures. Mabel had good sense enough to know that her efforts to win Dr. Lacey would be useless, and rather reluctantly she had given him up. Now her eyes grew brighter and her heart beat faster whenever Ashton approached. But, fair Mabel, your hopes are all in vain.
As we have before said, Julia was delighted at having Dr. Lacey thus to herself, and she resolved to increase the favorable impression she knew she had already made upon him. Most admirably was her part played. Fanny herself could not have been more gentle and agreeable than was Julia, as, together with Dr. Lacey, she traversed the broad walks of the garden. Sweet and soothing were the words she poured into his ear, occasionally administering a little well-timed flattery, and wishing, as she had once done before to another individual in similar circumstances, that Dr. Lacey had been her brother. He did not, like Mr. Wilmot, follow up this wish by a proposition that as he was not her brother she would accept him for a husband, but he pressed the hand, which, with seeming unconsciousness, had been placed on his, and said, "God knows how ardently I once hoped to be your brother, Julia."
"And would you then have loved me?" asked Julia, "me whom few have ever loved, because they did not know me; say, would you have loved me as a sister?"
The face of her who awaited Dr. Lacey's answer was very beautiful, while tears moistened the long eyelashes, which veiled the large, bright eyes, and the tones of her voice, now more like Fanny's than ever, thrilled his every nerve. What wonder, then, that his lips for the first time touched the polished brow of the tempter, as he said, "It would be no hard task, Julia, to love you with more than a brother's love."
"One more well-aimed blow," thought Julia, "and I shall have him at my feet"; but she was mistaken. Between herself and Dr. Lacey there arose the image of one, the remembrance of whom had a power to prevent the utterance of words which otherwise might have been spoken.
Abruptly changing the conversation, he drew her rather reluctantly toward the house, which they reached just in time to hear Florence exclaim, as she scattered the chessmen over the floor, "Why, Uncle Billy Middleton, what do you mean? Put yourself up to be played for, and then beat me; shame, shame."
"What is this all about?" asked Dr. Lacey, having some inkling of the truth.
"Why," answered Florence, "you see, Mr. Middleton has conceived a fatherly affection for me, and as he is rather rusty in such matters, he could think of no better way of proposing than to put himself up as a prize, and tell me if I beat him in playing chess, he would be mine, or in other words, make me Mrs. Billy Middleton."
"And who beat?" asked Julia.
"Why, Mr. Middleton was ill-mannered enough to win," said Florence, "but then, it was such fun to see how desperately he played, for fear I should get him! Now, Dr. Lacey, I suppose you have been proposing to Julia in the real old, orthodox way, but that is too common. You must sit down at the chessboard and let Julia play for you," and she pushed them both toward the chairs, which she and Mr. Middleton had just vacated.
Julia did not refuse, but Dr. Lacey, freeing himself from Florence, said, "Excuse me tonight, Miss Woodburn. Perhaps at some other time I will comply with your request," then bowing, he left the veranda and went to his own room.
When there he strove to recall the events of the evening, and the words he had involuntarily spoken to Julia. "Why is it," said he, "that I feel so uneasy whenever I am alone with her? Is it that I love her and am afraid I shall tell her so? No, that cannot be. I do not love her; and yet, next to Fanny, she is more agreeable to me than any one else."
Memories of other days came thronging about him, and he then resolved again to write and beseech Fanny at least to grant him her second love, even if her first, best affections had been given to another.
"Suppose she refuses you," seemed whispered in his ear.
It must have been some evil spirit which prompted the reply, "Then I will marry Julia, as being next and nearest to Fanny." His resolution once taken, he proceeded to carry it into effect. The letter was written and over Dr. Lacey came a sense of relief--a feeling that he had escaped from something, he knew not what. But she, who was upon his track, was more wily, more crafty than anything he had ever imagined.
This time, however, her interference was not necessary, for early next morning a carriage drew up in front of the Indian Nest. From it sprang Lida Gibson, who had recently returned from New York. She was full of talk, and within an hour after her arrival the story of Fanny's engagement with Frank Cameron had been repeated in Dr. Lacey's hearing at least three times.
"It must be true," said Lida, "for every one said so, and their actions proclaimed it, if nothing more; besides, Mr. Cameron's sister, Gertrude herself, told me it was so."
"I am not surprised," said Julia and her uncle both.
For Julia's opinion Dr. Lacey possibly might not have cared, but when Mr. Middleton too added his testimony, the matter was settled. The letter was not sent.
During the day Lida wondered much why Dr. Lacey stayed so closely in his room. "I should think he would roast in there," said she. "I do wonder what he is about?"
"I fancy," answered Florence, "that he still loves Fanny, and now that she is engaged he is staying alone until he gets his rebellious heart tied up."
When Lida afterward learned the truth, she expressed a wish that her tongue might have been cut out ere she had been the bearer of news which caused so much trouble.
While Dr. Lacey was securely bolted in his room, nerving himself to bear this fresh disappointment and striving to drive each thought of Fanny from him, Julia too was alone and busily engaged. What pains she took to rub and soil those tiny sheets of paper, until they assumed a worn and crumpled look! Then dipping her finger in the silver goblet at her side, what perfect tear blots she made, and how she exulted over the probable success of her morning's work! When it was finished she placed it in her portfolio, and waited for a favorable opportunity.
It came not that day, however, for save at meal time Dr. Lacey made not his appearance. To Mr. Middleton's inquiries concerning the reason of his seclusion, he replied, "that he was busy with important matters"; but his abstracted manner led Mr. Middleton to believe what he had long suspected, viz., that Dr. Lacey's heart was wholly centered upon Fanny, and that the news of her coming marriage was the cause of his unhappiness.
Next morning's sun rose clear and bright, but it brought a day which Dr. Lacey long, long remembered, and which Julia, in the bitterness of her heart, cursed many and many a time. In the early part of the morning Dr. Lacey wandered down to a small arbor, which stood at the foot of the garden. He had not been there long before Julia, too, came tripping down the walk, with her portfolio and drawing pencil. So absorbed was she in her own thoughts that she of course did not see Dr. Lacey until she had entered the arbor; then, with a most becoming blush and start, she said, "Pray pardon me for disturbing you. I had no idea you were here."
Dr. Lacey, of course, insisted upon her staying. She knew he would, and sitting down, she busied herself in looking over the contents of her portfolio. Suddenly she heaved a deep sigh, and Dr. Lacey looked up just in time to see her wipe something from her eyes, or pretend to, which must have been tears. At the same time she hastily thrust a paper back into her portfolio, which she immediately shut.
"What is the matter?" asked Dr. Lacey. "For whom was that sigh and those tears?"
"For poor Fan," answered Julia. "I have accidently found a part of an old journal, which she kept while Mr. Wilmot was living."
"May I see it?" asked Dr. Lacey.
Julia seemed at first reluctant, but finally replied, "Perhaps it will be as well to let you do so, for you may then judge more kindly of Fanny"; and she placed in his hands the soiled sheets of paper which we saw in her room.
Leaning back she watched him while he read. As we have as much right to read Fanny's journal as Dr. Lacey, we will here give a few brief extracts:
April--"Cease your wild beatings, my heart. Mr. Wilmot is promised to Julia. He will never be mine, but nought can prevent my loving him; ay, forever and ever."
August 1st--"I do not believe I am indifferent to Mr. Wilmot, but he will be true to his vows--he will wed Julia; and this doctor that bothers me so, what of him? Why, he is wealthy, and high, and handsome--but I do not love him; yet if he offers himself I shall say yes, for, as Mrs. Carrington says, 'he is a great catch.'"
Sept. 5--"Mr. Wilmot is dead, and with him died my poor, poor heart. Had he lived, he possibly might have turned to me, for Julia knew how much I loved him. Dear, generous Julia, how I wish Dr. Lacey would love her, for she is more worthy of him than I am."
Jan. 1--"Heigh ho, I'm engaged to Dr. Lacey! Who would think it? Now I am happy! Oh, no. Out in the graveyard lies one who could have made me happy. Ought I thus to deceive Dr. Lacey? Why, yes; if he is satisfied, it is well enough. I am ambitious, and if I can't marry for love, I will for money. And then he's given me so beautiful a piano. Oh, I hope he'll send me more presents after he gets home!"
Jan. 15--"Dr. Lacey has gone and I feel relieved. But just think of it--Julia loves him devotedly. I wish he knew it. She has always loved him and tries to make me do the same. She read me a sermon today two hours long about my duty. Fudge on my duty! As long as I can make Joshua and Dr. Lacey think I'm all sunshine, it's no matter if my love is all moonshine."
This journal was interspersed here and there with tears, and was so exact an imitation of Fanny's writing that Dr. Lacey was completely duped. He, however, wondered that Julia should show it to him. She had foreseen this, and as he was reading the last few lines she was looking over her portfolio. Suddenly springing up, she snatched the paper from his hands, saying, "Oh, what have I done? I've shown you the wrong part of the journal. I did not mean you to see this. What shall I do? You'll hate Fanny and despise me."
"Why despise you?" asked Dr. Lacey.
"Because," replied Julia, "you will dislike me for the foolish thing which Fan wrote about me. I could not help her writing it."
"And is it true?" asked Dr. Lacey.
"Oh, you must not ask me that--I can't tell--I shan't tell--" and seizing her portfolio Julia started off toward the house, thinking possibly she should be pursued. But she was not.
During the reading of the journal Dr. Lacey's heart seemed to go through a benumbing process, which rendered it perfectly palsied. No emotion either of love or anger did he feel toward Fanny. She was nought to him.
And how did the knowledge that Julia loved him affect him? Answer, any man, whether your wounded pride is never soothed by woman's sympathy, and love, come in what garb it may. And in Dr. Lacey's case it was a being of wondrous beauty, who knew well what she was about and had marked each inch of ground ere she trod upon it. What marvel then that Dr. Lacey turned toward her. You would have done so; ay, perchance sooner than he did.
That evening after supper, as Dr. Lacey was walking upon the veranda, Florence approached him, saying, "Come, Dr. Lacey, now fulfill your promise of playing with Julia," at the same time leading him toward the place where her companions were seated. "Now," said she, placing the chessboard in his hands, "I am mistress of ceremonies. We will have a fair understanding. If Julia beats, you shall be hers; if you beat, Mabel and Lida shall draw cuts for you. Do you agree to it?"
"Certainly," was Dr. Lacey's reply, at the same time seating himself opposite Julia, who gave him a look of searching inquiry. He understood her and in a low tone answered, "I am in earnest. Do your best."
And she did her best. With one strong effort of the will she concentrated all her energies upon that game, which she felt would decide her fate. Dr. Lacey, too, as if resolved to conquer, played most skillfully. The bystanders for a time looked on, and as Lida noticed the livid hue of Julia's face, she said, "Pray, Julia, don't burst a blood vessel, for maybe Dr. Lacey will have you, even if you do not beat."
But the ear she addressed was deaf save to the quiet sound of the chessmen. The contest was long and severe. Nine, ten, eleven, struck the little clock in the hall. One by one the spectators stole away. Florence's parting words were, "If Dr. Lacey beats, be sure and wake us, Julia, so Mabel and Lida can draw cuts."
And now they were alone. Once and only once Julia glanced at the face of her antagonist. It was white and colorless as her own hand, which wandered steadily over the chessboard. The final spell was upon him, and he seemed striving hard to shake it off. 'Twas all in vain. The little clock struck the hour of midnight. The game was ended. Julia had won. Dr. Lacey was checkmated!
With one hand he rapidly swept the board of its occupants, while the other he extended toward Julia, saying: "Take it. 'Tis all I can offer, for you well know I have no heart to give. My hand and name you have won--they are yours."
A person less intriguing or determined than Julia would have scorned to receive a hand so coldly offered. But not so with her. She did not expect any protestations of love, for she knew he felt none. Yet she was hardly satisfied, and resolved upon one movement more ere she accepted what she felt was reluctantly given.
"You are mistaken in me," said she, "if you think I will play for a husband, and then expect him to comply with the terms unless he chooses to do so."
Dr. Lacey replied, "When I consented to play, I knew what I was about, and I knew, too, that you love me. I cannot say the same to you in return, but you are far from being indifferent to me. When I first knew you I disliked you, for I believed you to be passionate, jealous and designing; nor do I think my opinion of you then was wrong; but you are changed, very much changed. Continue to be what you are now, and we may be happy, for I may learn to love you, but never as fondly, as madly, as I loved your sister; ay, as I could love her again; but enough of this. She was false; she deceived me, and now I will wed you."
And what said Julia to all this? Why, she sat bolt upright, listening attentively while Dr. Lacey expressed his former and present opinion of her. When he had finished, she ventured to acknowledge her love for him; said she had always loved him, and that as his wife she would try to make him happy. Perhaps she was sincere in this, for she did love Dr. Lacey as well as her selfish nature would suffer her to love any one, and she had resolved, if she ever married him, to do all in her power to atone, if possible, for the past.
A half hour longer they conversed of the future, and arranged the plan, which Julia next day wrote to her sister. At last Dr. Lacey exclaimed, "Come, Julia, you must go now; it is getting late, for see,"--pointing to the little clock; but as if astonished at what it had heard, the clock had stopped!